Cast of Wonders 471: The Storyteller’s Wife
The Storyteller’s Wife
by Eugie Foster
Janie Harper felt strange driving home with the sun so high, the tawny-gold of noon instead of the cool, buttery silver of early evening. Ten years of nine-to-five drudgery, lost weekends sacrificed to project deadlines, corporate double-speak, and mind-numbing boredom. All gone.
She’d hated her job, hated her days spent watching the clock and wishing the hours of her life would speed away while she was trapped in her cubicle. But even with three months to prepare for this day, her last one, the morning had passed in a surreal haze punctuated by queasiness and a peculiar chill, like her stomach was lined with ice. She remembered nestling the glass-framed photograph of Tom, her husband, into the box the secretary had provided for her personal effects, but not carrying it to her car. And she couldn’t remember driving out of the concrete monolith of the parking garage, or if she’d obeyed the speed limit in the school zone, or even if she’d fastened her seatbelt.
At least her supervisor had known about Tom, about their situation, and had taken Janie aside before the pink slips went out. Janie, through her upset, had remembered to be grateful. She had needed the head start to make arrangements, to prepare herself and Tom for the now-uncertain future. But even three extra months hadn’t been enough time. No one was hiring: not for secretarial positions, not for retail associates, nor food service, and certainly not mainframe programmers who needed full health benefits.
And now she was home. Her home, hers and Tom’s, with its high ceilings and mismatched furniture, how long would they be able to keep up their mortgage payments now?
No. Tom had made her promise that today, at least, would be carefree—a day of rest. Her husband, soft around the middle, hair thinning on top and too long on the sides, he would be waiting for her, listening for the garage door to announce her arrival.
Thinking of Tom loosened the vise that squeezed her chest, constricting her lungs. He’d wrap his arms around her, and she could go limp and bury her face between his chin and shoulder. He would probably be shirtless in the June heat, his skin sticky from the summer humidity. They had stopped turning on the air conditioner, trying to save money. Nowadays his usual attire was a pair of purple boxers patterned with bright green shamrocks.
He’d promised to tell her a lovely, rambling story this afternoon. His stories were so much better than anything the old, sputtering television could manage, or even the movies they could no longer afford to see. It might be about a bold knight on a quest to save his ladylove, or a fearsome creature of shadows and nightmare to haunt evildoers, or her favorite, the magical world of Faerie where seelie and unseelie courts vied in an unending struggle for supremacy. She loved being lulled to sleep by his voice at night; it was the only part of him the sickness hadn’t touched.
She sat for a moment within the garage, engine silent and off; the dim overhead the only illumination. She should take the cardboard box in with her, all she had to show for ten years’ service, but she left it unopened on the passenger seat.
Tom wasn’t waiting for her in the foyer. Strange.
“Honey?” she called.
He wasn’t in the bedroom or library. She even peeked out the back door to see if he was outside in the yard. But no, he wasn’t there either.
She’d passed by it on her way to check the bedroom, her eyes touching upon it and then away: Tom’s wheelchair. It was so incongruous it had taken long moments to penetrate. But now she stood before it in the kitchen, puzzled but not yet afraid. How could Tom’s wheelchair be there, empty?
It sat propped in the corner next to their tiny dining table. An extension of her husband, replacement for his strengthless legs, its solitary presence was sinister, like finding a dismembered finger or foot. Folded neatly on the seat was a note. Janie noticed with some surprise that her fingers were trembling as she opened the crisp sheet of paper. There, after all, was the apprehension, the fright. It grew stronger as she read the words written in her husband’s unmistakable, sloppy hand:
I was going to address this “dear Janie” and then “dearest Janie” and then “my true love Janie” but none of those sound right. You are and have always been the best thing in my life, and if I haven’t been able to get that through to you by now, a “dear” or “dearest” sure as hell isn’t going to.
First of all, let me say I’m sorry. I’m sorry for how hard I’ve made our lives. The medical bills, taking care of me. You never complained, but I knew there were evenings when you wished we could have gone dancing like we used to, or to the movies, or shopping. And I’m sorry for breaking my promise to you. I could say here that I’m doing this for you, removing the drain upon your finances and life from my therapy, my surgeries, and my medicines, so you can have some sort of future. But it wouldn’t be true. Simply, I’m taking the coward’s way out. I hurt, Janie. I hurt all the time, and though you deny it, I know my mind has begun to wander. I’m afraid of the pain, and I’m afraid I will forget myself, and worst of all, I’m afraid I will forget you. So, while I can still choose, and while I still have the strength, I’m checking out.
I know I promised never to leave you. I’m so very sorry to break that promise. I hope you can forgive me.
Next, and I know I’m not in a position to make requests, but think of it as my final one. Don’t go upstairs. I’m in the guest room. I didn’t want you to find me or see me. Call the police or the neighbors, whomever you like, but don’t go upstairs. I would spare you that.
Goodbye my dear, my dearest, my truest, best Janie. We will love again in the next world. I know it.
The police came when she called them. What had she said into the plastic mouthpiece with the stranger’s voice murmuring through it? It didn’t matter. The police came and took the note from her senseless fingers, read the tear-smudged words, and went upstairs. They trooped back down, their faces grim and sad.
“How?” she whispered.
At first, they didn’t want to tell her. But she kept asking, refusing to let them escape or change the subject until they relented. Speaking slowly and in low voices, as though that would diminish the impact of their words, they told her.
Tom had dragged himself up the stairs—a Herculean effort in his state—with a backpack. Within the pack, a pharmacopoeia: the collection of his pills they’d been hoarding, three months of maxing out refill after refill on her HMO, trying to stock up against when her benefits would expire; a bottle of aspirin, and the last of their vodka. He’d taken them all—the painkillers and the sleeping pills and the aspirin—and washed them down with liquor.
As though to reassure her, they told her that Tom must have been dead for several hours by the time she read his note.
The ambulance came quietly; the siren mute; the orange and yellow lights dark and still. There was no emergency to rush to, no life hanging upon the balance of seconds.
Janie watched the paramedics carry the stretcher upstairs. She didn’t go with them because Tom had asked her not to. So she stood, watching the stairs as they brought her husband’s blanket-shrouded body down.
“Wait.” She stopped them in the foyer, the foyer where Tom had waited for her to return to him every day, his face tilted up to greet her with a kiss.
She had obeyed her husband’s request; she hadn’t gone upstairs. But she had to see him one last time in their home.
Her hands no longer trembled. Janie gripped the edge of the gray blanket that covered his face. The thin curtain, this death shroud, was her last refuge. Pulled away from his familiar, dear face, she wouldn’t be able to pretend this was all an elaborate hoax, a trick. Seeing his still features would banish that part of her which knew, which railed and protested, that Tom had to be alive, hadn’t really left her alone. And so the part of her that was his, the part she’d given to him to keep and love would truly die—the best part of her.
She tugged the blanket away.
Feeling the blood drain from her face, she clutched the edge of the stretcher. The cool metal biting into her palms kept her standing, forced the blackness that threatened to swallow her at bay—though her knees wanted to buckle.
What lay beneath the gray shroud was not her poor, beloved Tom. It was a large wooden manikin, crudely carved and rough. Someone had whittled the shape of his nose, jutting from the center of a face with planes and angles too sharp to have felt the touch of sandpaper. Lips leered in a splintery grin, a caricature of the soft smile she knew so well, and jagged Xs had been gouged in lieu of eyes. Tufts of straw and dry grass were glued and knotted around the head, the color several shades lighter than the soft brown waves of her husband’s hair.
Janie yanked the blanket to the floor. The doll was life sized. They had carved the soft roundness of his stomach but hadn’t bothered to detail fingers or toes, just rough outlines at the end of the stumps that shaped his arms and legs. The final indignity or cruelty, they had dressed it in Tom’s purple shamrock boxers.
She turned to the closest paramedic. “What the hell do you mean by this?”
Her outrage drove him back a step.
“Where’s my husband? You didn’t think this obscenity would fool me, did you?”
The second paramedic put a hand on her arm. “Ma’am, I’m very sorry for your loss—”
She shook off the solicitous touch. “What did you do with him?”
“Ma’am, please. I know this is hard for you—”
“Where is he? Where is he!”
“It’s always hard to lose someone you love. But—”
“I never loved this. It’s a wooden stump!”
The second paramedic gaped at her.
“Tony, I think there’s some diazepam in the cabin.” This from the first. “We’ll bring her some after we put him in. C’mon.”
She would have stopped them, but she realized that Tom still had to be there, upstairs. As they wheeled the gurney out, Janie stumbled up the stairs.
Ever since Tom had been forced into the wheelchair five years ago, their second story had become an unused landscape, full of dust and debris. They had migrated everything they needed downstairs for convenience. Unused, the other half of their home became storage. She tripped over piles of magazines and plastic cartons filled with relics of a lifestyle no longer enjoyed—an obstacle course of glossy paper, high heels, crumpled dresses, and knickknacks. Had Tom truly navigated this mess on his suicide pilgrimage?
She fumbled with the doorknob to the spare room. As she’d waited for the police and the ambulance, her imagination envisioned Tom on the daybed within—perhaps propped up on the garish throw pillows his parents had given them many Christmases ago, or maybe lying on the dusty coverlet.
The door opened.
The pillows and coverlet were exactly as she had pictured them. But Tom wasn’t on the daybed—neither propped up nor supine. He wasn’t there at all.
But someone else was.
A creature—not a man but not an animal either—struggled with the window. She remembered that particular window tended to stick. The creature wasn’t big; Janie doubted it would stand taller than her knee. The top of its head came to her chin as it wrestled and strained, its feet planted on the windowsill. It was covered in a thick pelt of rich, brown fur. A single lightning-white stripe ran from its head to its back.
At her entrance, it turned and yelped. It leaped to the ground and dashed on all fours at her. Before the realization properly formed in her mind that it was trying to escape, not attack, she stepped into the room and slammed closed the door. The creature was trapped.
From the front, it had white patches on its elbows and knees, and it was unmistakably a “him.” Its, or rather his, face was almost human. He reminded her of the lemurs she and Tom had seen at the zoo, long ago before the doctors and the pain and the wheelchair. A pair of round, black eyes glittered above a bulbous nose. Miniscule human lips curled back in a snarl, flashing sharp, white fangs. Delicately pointed ears pricked forward, poking through a mat of fur.
The creature stood. “Wretched woman,” he growled. “To defy your man’s last request. Fie.”
“You can talk.”
“Of course I can talk. Release me or I will send boggles to pinch you in your sleep and goblins to curdle your cream.”
Boggles? Goblins? Those were types of fairies in Tom’s stories.
In a daze, Janie spoke the heroine’s reply. “No, not until you give me back my husband.”
“He is not mine to give, mortal woman.”
This wasn’t a story, though. They were talking about Tom, her real husband in the real world. “He’s been stolen, then? He’s not dead?”
The fairy creature hissed.
Janie remembered all her husband’s tales, from the one he had given her the day he proposed, to the one he had told her last night after she’d woken him with her restless tossing. If this was that extraordinary entity, a real fairy tale, she knew her lines.
“I caught you fair and square,” she said. “You have to answer me truthfully or I’ll cage you in a box of cold iron and never let you out.”
The fairy dropped to all fours, ears flattened to his skull. “Three questions may you have of me, mortal woman, and three only.”
“Fine. Where is my husband?”
He glared at her. “Your Tom is in the glittering land. He basks in the golden afternoons and breathes the opalescent air of Faerie.”
The answer didn’t astonish her. Perhaps she was too numb or just too plain flabbergasted to be surprised anymore. “Which means he’s alive?”
“Aye. Your man is alive.”
The part of her that had been holding itself rigid and unbreathing relaxed. Tom was alive. Gone from here, gone from this world, but alive.
Janie frowned. That was two questions down, leaving one more. According to Tom’s stories, once this creature answered her final question it would be free to escape, her only link to her husband gone. Unless—
“My final question is this: What is your true and complete name?”
The creature screamed, a long, keening wail. “Nay! Do not make me speak my name! I will bring bee sweets and gossamer rainbow strands to twine in your beautiful raven locks, but do not force me to give up my name!”
“Answer my question.”
“You condemn me to servitude in the world of man if I relinquish my name to you. I will fade here and die, bound by the rope of mortality on your lips.”
“I know. I’m sorry, but I need your help to find my husband. So I ask you a third time—”
The creature shrieked. “Nay! Will you bargain, my lady? What if I promised to help you on your quest? I would be a true guide and companion. I would take you to Faerie and warn you of its dangers if you would but have mercy. Do not make me speak my name in this cold land of dead dreams and clay.”
Janie contemplated the cringing fairy at her feet. “If you swear in good faith to take me to Faerie and help me get Tom back, I will release you from having to answer my final question. But you must swear it by your true name and by Faerie itself.”
The fairy crept forward until his nose nudged her foot. “Blessings upon you and all your children.”
“Stop that. Swear!”
The creature shivered. “I will serve thee in honor and pass thee through the veil between the world of man and the kingdom of Faerie. There I will escort thee in safety to the throne room of the Mistress of Air and Darkness herself, Nicnivin, Queen of Faerie. It is she who has taken your Tom. This I swear by my true name and by all of Faerie.”
She felt a chill, like icy fingers on her neck. In Tom’s stories, the Queen of Faerie was a fearsome sidhe, without remorse or compassion. She wielded all the dark magics of the unseelie court with a sadistic enjoyment of its denizens’ suffering.
So be it. “I accept your oath,” she said. “And I release you from the onus of my third question.”
The fairy kissed her foot and fawned on the ground before her. “Bless you, good woman.”
“Mrs. Harper?” The voice of Tony, the second paramedic, drifted to her from downstairs. “Are you okay?”
“Stay here,” Janie said to the fairy. “I need to get rid of the ambulance people. Then we’ll go.”
“As you command.”
She paused, her hand on the doorknob. “They really think that block of wood is my husband’s body, don’t they?”
“Aye. Cunningly forged and seeped in fairy magic is the changeling.”
“Not so cunning. I could see through it.”
The fairy shrugged. “The eyes of love are keen. If you had obeyed the note I penned and left your man’s visage undisturbed until your heart could accept his death, it would have fooled even you.”
“You wrote that? It was very believable.”
“I plucked it from a passing thought I found in your Tom’s mind.”
“You’ll stay here?” she said.
Janie apologized to the paramedics for her outburst, lied that she had called family to come and comfort her (there was no family; his parents had died two years ago, hers before they had met), and refused their offer to stay with her until they arrived. Almost pushing them out the door, she watched them drive away with the wooden manikin that was supposed to be her husband.
As good as his word, the fairy was waiting for her when she returned. He sat on the edge of the daybed, a mournful expression on his face.
“Nicnivin will roast my ears for failing her in this. Cannot I convince you to surrender this foolish quest? I will bring you a bottomless pouch of gold. You could be rich and grow fat with luxury.”
“Very well.” The fairy sounded sullen. “Remove your shoes and we’ll be off.”
“Your flesh must be in contact with Lady Earth in order to cross into Faerie.”
Janie kicked off her pumps and peeled off the thin stockings that covered her feet. “What should I call you, by the way?”
“Call me Hobs.” He bounded off the daybed. “Follow. Once we are outside these walls, step only where I step, move only where I move.”
Hobs led her to the kitchen door, the one that opened onto the backyard. Enclosed by a tall, six-foot privacy fence, she and Tom had let the area become overgrown. Janie had never been much for yard work, and with Tom unable to mow, the yard looked more like a forest than a suburban landscape. Towering weeds strangled the holly bushes and usurped the straggling pansies. Unknown vines and creepers clambered over the peeling planks of the fence and sprouted a cascade of violet and white flowers. It was beautiful out there. Beautiful and wild.
She followed Hobs as he led her through prickly foliage and knee-high tufts of grass. Pushing aside trailing branches, long overdue for pruning, they emerged in a tiny hollow within a nameless, thorny bush. Overhead, a knotted canopy of pear and peach trees shaded them from the sun. In the shadows, a circle of toadstools glistened.
“Lift me up,” Hobs said. “A misstep could fling us apart, separated by all of Faerie. I do not relish the idea of chasing over hill and dale in search of you.” He lifted his arms, looking like a child in a fur coat demanding to be carried.
She boosted him up and cradled him in her arms. He weighed no more than a cat. His fur was soft and thick beneath her fingers, and he smelled musky—a tangy sweetness that tickled her nose. The scent held a hint of honey and cinnamon, but also something wilder, something she couldn’t identify but that was still familiar.
“What now?” she said.
“Hsst, shush. I must concentrate.” Hobs peered intently at the ring. A long moment passed. Then another. Janie blinked. Had the air shimmered? Like a heat mirage on burning summer days when the baking highway sent wisps of light twisting into the air, the space above the toadstools trembled.
“There,” he said. “Jump into the ring. Both feet must leave the earth and land together. Now!”
Janie jumped. Mid-hop, she hung in the air with the curious sensation of the borders of the toadstool ring moving towards her, rather than she to it. A solid wall of shimmering color streaked at her. She clutched Hobs tight in her arms as it hit.
Then she was through and blinking. Around her ankles the toadstool caps gleamed, but there any resemblance to her wilderness backyard stopped. They were in a forest glade, the green arms of oak and willow trees tangled and endless overhead. Gold, dappled sunlight filtered through to dot the air with splashes of light and shadow. Where it struck, pure and unbroken, the light was sparkling, clean, and perfect. The shadows were a deep, rich purple—a color so evocative of enchantments and fairy tales it made her heart ache.
Surrounding them in a still, silent throng, were fairies. Sidhe garbed in cobweb cloaks and carapace breastplates, sprites with iridescent butterfly wings, furred goblins with ape-like arms, terrifying night hags, delicate pixies—more fairies than she could name or hope to recognize—assembled outside the toadstool ring, watching her.
“It seems we were expected,” she whispered.
Hobs squirmed until she released him. “You did not stipulate that I could not alert my queen,” he said.
“Let them through.” The voice rang out, clear as a crystalline brook, loud as thunder. It was exquisite and terrible and magnificent. Janie knew it could belong to none other than the Queen of Air and Darkness herself, dread Nicnivin.
If the crowd had been human, she would have expected to hear shuffling feet, maybe the whisper and rustle of cloth as it moved. But this glittering and glowering multitude parted to create an aisle for her in absolute silence. It was wide enough so if she stood in the middle of this new clearing with her arms outstretched, the tips of her fingers might, just might, brush against fur or wings or spangled mantle. She hugged her arms to her sides as she marched down the corridor of fairy bodies.
Hobs trotted a step ahead of her.
Waiting for them at the end of this aisle on a throne of solid shadow was the Queen of Faerie. Her gleaming hair wreathed her in a froth of night. Wisps of moonlight shifted and roiled in soundless tides at her feet. Her gown was a gauze of mist that swathed her body from neck to ankle, fluctuating from sheer transparency to modest opacity.
Hobs threw himself on his face before her.
She glanced down at him, displeasure clear on her face. “I will deal with you later, worthless hob.” Her voice was ice and winter sky.
A fine trembling shook the little fairy’s frame. “My queen,” he whimpered, “she saw through the spell, threatened me with cold iron.”
“Speak no more to me or I will rip your tongue from your head.”
“It’s not totally his fault,” Janie said. “The manikin fooled the paramedics, after all. I’m sure it was a very good spell.”
The Queen turned to Janie. Her eyes were black as jet, deep as midnight, and cold as stone. “Welcome to Faerie, Goodwife Harper.”
Janie wondered if she should curtsy or bow.
Nicnivin’s gaze swept over Hobs. “This one has told me you have come for your man, Thomas Harper.”
Janie blinked. That was far more forthright than the fey ever were in Tom’s stories. “Aren’t we supposed to play word games or something first?”
“If you prefer, we may. But I foresee the truth of the situation will be better sport than any riddle I could devise.”
“So I can have him back?”
“You have only to ask me three times and I will return you both to the world of man, banished forever from my realm.”
Janie opened her mouth.
The Queen raised her hand. “Wait. I would have you hear me out.”
“There’s always a catch.”
A tiny smile curved Nicnivin’s lips. “Indeed. But despite what you may have heard to the contrary, I am not without compassion. Would you like to look upon your man first?”
“He’s here?” Janie craned her head, searching the host for a glimpse of Tom’s hair, his face, anything.
“I said look upon him. No more, no less.”
“Oh. Yes, please.”
Nicnivin flung out an arm. Her sleeve of mist streamed in a waterfall to the ground. The instant it touched, it condensed, shimmered, and thickened until it became a murky pool of darkness. Janie stepped closer to see the image that swirled and eddied on the surface.
A golden ballroom gleamed in the mirror sheen. Beautiful sidhe ladies and elegant sidhe lords waltzed on marble tile while a fey orchestra played in the background. Almost, she could hear the eldritch strains of music as the couples lilted and swayed. The closest pair spun, filling the smoky plane with the lady’s lace skirts, brocade bodice, and the lord’s velvet surcoat. But it wasn’t a sidhe lord who waltzed so gracefully in the arms of a beautiful lady; it was Tom. A younger Tom, a healthy Tom who could walk, could dance, but definitely her Tom. The lines that pain had carved in his face were gone, dropping years from him. He looked as young as when they had met, fifteen years ago.
“Tom?” His laughing face was so close, close enough to touch. Without intending to, her fingers reached and broke the surface of the liquid mirror. The ripples banished the image, dissolving it like sunlight tearing shadows.
Queen Nicnivin flicked her fingers and the mist melted away.
“Is what I saw really—?”
“Yes. That was your Thomas. This is Faerie, land of magic and dreams. I can and have restored that which the world of man stole.”
“He was dancing,” Janie said.
“And happy. So therein the choice you must make. Would you take away what I have returned to him? Would you condemn your man again to pain and sickness? Here he will live for centuries in the hale and nourishing air of Faerie. In your world, he has scant years left, and they will be filled with great misery and sorrow for you both. Let him remain here, Goodwife. And as a favor, I can remove your memories of him. If you leave him, I will see to it you will not suffer mourning for him.”
Janie sank to her knees. She had forgotten what Tom had looked like before the sickness, forgotten how much joy life had given him, how much joy it had given them both in those days. He could reclaim that here. Already had. She had seen it in his face.
“Why do you want him? What could he possibly mean to you?”
The Queen smiled. It was a predatory, vicious grin. For whatever reason, she had wanted Janie to ask that question.
“Know, Goodwife, that Faerie is shaped by storytellers. Their fantasies, their dreams give my realm life. We were dying, all of us from smallest nixie to highborn sidhe, for want of a storyteller. That little one,” she pointed to Hobs still prostrate at her feet, “heard your man’s tales as he listened at your window. What he brought back of them revived me, and so revived Faerie.”
Janie felt the bile of nausea rise in her throat. “So if I take Tom back, I condemn Faerie too.”
Her eyes burned. Tears spilled over her cheeks in a wave of scalding droplets. “But I love him! He’s all I have, all I want, all I’ve ever wanted.” Janie struggled against the sobs that shook her body, her nose running, and her breath hiccupping in her throat. She so wanted to be calm before Nicnivin, brave and dignified like all the heroines in Tom’s stories.
The Queen reached a hand to Janie’s face and caught a tear as it coursed down. It glittered on her fingertip, became a jewel, softer than pearl and clear as diamond. The Queen of Faerie cupped her hand around the precious gem.
“Woman of clay and sorrow, your tears have reminded me of love. I have not felt the delight and agony of love in centuries. For the memory of your tears, I would give you a gift.”
“I will let you remain in Faerie with your Tom. You may be together here in an endless afternoon of leisure and delight. Would you like that?”
Almost, almost, Janie agreed. But then she remembered Tom’s stories. There was always a price to fairy gifts. “W—what would it cost me, us?”
Nicnivin tilted her head against the back of her throne. In that moment she looked tired and worn.
“Your memories,” she said at last. She had the decency to lower her eyes. “Your man does not remember you now, indeed remembers nothing of his mortal time. It is the nature of Faerie. This I cannot change, even if I wanted to. It is a law older than mankind, older even than myself. Remain here, eat the fruit of the vines, drink the waters, and breathe the sweet air. It will give you long life, health, and bliss. But the price is your world. You must forget the world of man and all you have done within it.”
“So even if you gave me Tom now—?”
“Neither he nor you have supped or drank, nor have you breathed the perfumed Lethe for long. He would not know you now, but if he returned to man’s world, he would regain his memory.”
Janie wrapped her arms around her shoulders and rocked back and forth. “You are cruel, Queen of Faerie.”
“My mercy has oft been deemed worse than my tortures. Make your choice, storyteller’s wife.”
“I—I don’t know what to do. How can I take this away from him? But our memories are who we are. Please. I need more time.”
Nicnivin nodded. “May no one accuse me of injustice. I give you one hour.” She beckoned, and Hobs jumped up and scampered to her. “This one who has pledged himself to you will be your timekeeper. Until then, I and my court take our leave of you.”
The Queen stood and spread her arms. A heavy fog swirled up, so dark and thick Janie could feel it brush clammy fingers against her skin. She blinked, and it poured away, taking the Queen, her throne, and all the assembled fairies with it. Except for Hobs.
Janie reached out and stroked her hand through the cowering fairy’s fur. “I’m sorry you’re in so much trouble, Hobs.”
Hobs curled himself into a tight ball. “We are all unfortunate players in this theater.”
“I don’t know what to do. For you, for me, or for Tom.”
Hobs poked his nose out from the arm he had buried it under. “What does your heart tell you?”
Janie rubbed her eyes. “That’s the problem. My heart’s telling me all my choices stink.”
Janie covered her face with her hands. “How can I force Tom to return to all that pain? Would he really want me to?”
“It would be better for Faerie if you did not.”
Janie closed her eyes. Tom’s touch, the smell of his skin—Ivory soap, hazelnut coffee, and faintly, the artificial melon and lemon fragrance of the shampoo he liked—gone forever. It would be like losing him twice today, the same as if he’d died twice.
She knew how much he hated his weakness and dependency on her. He had refused to concede to the sickness, hurting himself more no matter how much she nagged and railed at him to let her help him. Tom was so stubborn. He had conceded nothing until his body betrayed him and he had been forced to accept the wheelchair.
On that day she bought one of those silly toy scooters. She’d coaxed him to race—her on the scooter, him in his wheelchair—up and down their street. The sounds of their laughter brought scandalized frowns to the faces of their neighbors. She hadn’t cared. The look of exhilaration on Tom’s face had been wonderful.
But the pain got worse and the doctors prescribed more medicines. These ones made him sick and groggy. The races stopped.
They spent more time locked away in their house. He told her stories. It was enough for her. But the pain in his beautiful blue eyes, and the confused, lost look he wore when he thought she wasn’t looking—”
“Thanks. But I wanted to ask. You brought my husband’s stories to Faerie? How?”
“Wise Nicnivin sent we smaller fey out of Faerie to seek a storyteller. High and low we searched, but the trade of storytelling has fallen out of favor in the world of man. We despaired until I found your Tom.”
“But there are thousands of authors and scriptwriters in America alone. Movies, television shows, radio plays, even. There are plenty of stories in the world.”
“Technological gadgets and words scribbled on paper?” Hobs snorted. “What use are such fripperies in Faerie? Stories must be bequeathed from a storyteller’s lips.”
“Oh. How did you bring Tom’s stories to Faerie, then?”
Hobs clapped his hands together and when he parted them, he held a shining globe like a solid soap bubble. “I crafted dream catchers to trap his tales and voice. They can divine a true storyteller’s talent from dross. I rejoiced when it filled, and so sped with all haste to present it to my Queen. Oh, the beauty when she released it for all to hear! The dying roses that guard the court revived, blooming red and white and black, and the air itself grew flavored with the music of his voice.”
Janie smiled. “His stories have that effect on me too. Which one was it?”
“It was a tale of an intriguing race of not-men who wore curious masks whose souls were empty but for these expressive guises. Their brain cups filled as they donned them, but were otherwise vacant. There was a killing and an inquiry.”
“A murder mystery. I remember that one. It was one of my favorites.” How could she leave Tom here? It had nearly destroyed her when she thought he was dead. But she didn’t want to forget him either. Tom and his stories, the way he laughed, the way he always forgot to lock the doors at night, terrifying her that some derelict or robber would take advantage of his trust. She treasured every memory, every second she had of him.
Janie pressed her palms against her forehead. “Tom gave me a story when he proposed, you know. He knew I didn’t like diamonds—we couldn’t afford a ring anyway—so he gave me a story as an engagement present.”
“A princely gift. May I be so privileged to hear what it was about?”
Janie smiled. “True love, of course. There was a wedding in it, a wealthy lord and his beautiful lady. She died tragically during the wedding. A necromancer—that’s a sorcerer of death—happened to be at the ceremony. He captured her spirit before it flew to the Underworld and gave it to the lord so he could still be with his bride. The lord and lady couldn’t touch and could only speak to each other for one minute each day at midnight. But they were together. The spell was expensive, though. It needed to be renewed every day with gemstones, silver, and blood. The lord was rich, but over time, he had to sell everything he had until he was starving and penniless. Then there was only her and him. He fed his lifeblood to her spell so they could have one last minute together before he died. The spell faded away and they went to the Underworld together.”
“A sad tale,” Hobs said.
“No, don’t you see? It’s a happy story. It’s a terrible life for them, but they get to be together, so it’s okay.” Janie clapped her hands over her mouth. “Oh.”
“Are you unwell?”
“Time, Hobs,” she whispered.
“I know what to do. Quick, call Nicnivin back before I change my mind.”
The Queen of Air and Darkness appeared. “I am here.” There was no mist, no fog, no smoke. It was as though she wasn’t there, and then she was.
“You have decided?” she said.
Janie met the Queen’s eyes, anguished. “Yes, I have. Queen Nicnivin, I ask you to give my Tom back. He belongs in the real world with me.”
The Queen’s lips curled back to bare her sharp, white teeth. “You would selfishly condemn him to his suffering?”
“It’s what he wants.”
“You are certain? Be very sure. You will not be able to undo your choice.”
Janie lifted her chin. “I’m sure. Love isn’t a fairy tale or a pretty story; it’s real, and hard, and painful. But it’s also wonderful. I know what Tom wants because he taught me what love means.”
Nicnivin pursed her lips. “You doom Faerie with your love.”
“Can’t you send Hobs with his dream catchers to us? He could bring them back to you. It would buy you a little more time to find another storyteller—one that isn’t sick, and one that maybe wouldn’t mind staying in Faerie.”
“You would do this for us? Give us your Thomas’ stories freely?”
“Why not? I’d still get to hear them. I don’t mind sharing.”
Nicnivin smiled, the look of soft hope unexpected on her regal face. “Take this.” She handed Janie an emerald-green sprig covered in crimson berries.
“There are twice seven fruits and twice seven leaves on this bough. Every day, steep a tea from one leaf and one fruit and have your man sip it. It will not heal him; he will not be able to dance or walk again. But it will slow the sickness that festers in him, and it will stop the pain. I will give Hobs a new bough every fortnight. It will have as many fruits as stories your Thomas gives us.”
Janie clasped the delicate branch in her hands. “A story a day—”
“Keeps the medicine man away,” Nicnivin finished. “Now ask me twice more, and I will send you home.”
“Give me back my husband and return us to the real world,” Janie said.
“Two,” Hobs said.
“Give me back my husband and return us to the real world!” Janie cried.
Janie looked up from the berry-laden bough that rested in a vase on the dining table. “Tom?”
The silence stretched and for a despair-filled moment Janie wondered if the Queen had reneged on their deal.
But then Tom turned a corner in his wheelchair, his hair disheveled and his eyes bleary. He wore only his purple shamrock boxers. “You’re home earlier than I thought,” he said. “I nodded off. Had the neatest dream.”
Janie flung her arms around her husband’s shoulders and kissed his face. “I missed you so much!”
Tom laughed and hugged her close. “Silly girl. You were only gone for half a day. And how was your last day at work?”
“You wouldn’t believe how hard it was.”
“Still want me to tell you a story?”
“Oh, yes, definitely. But hang on a minute.” Janie ran to the window that overlooked their backyard. Opening it wide, she peered out.
“Hsst.” Hobs waved at her from beneath the sill. He held a shining soap bubble in his other hand.
She waved back. Turning, she saw Tom watching her with a bemused look.
“What’re you doing, honey?” he asked.
“Just opening the window. After your story, I’ve got one to tell you for a change. I hope you like the ending.”
Tom smiled. “Of course I will. I love you, y’know.”
About the Author
Eugie Foster was an American short story writer, columnist, and editor. Her stories have been published in a number of magazines and book anthologies, including Fantasy Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Interzone. Her collections of short stories include Returning My Sister’s Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice, published in 2009.
After receiving her master’s degree in psychology, she retired from academia to pen flights of fancy. She also edited legislation for the Georgia General Assembly, which from time to time she suspected were another venture into flights of fancy. She was also a director for Dragon*Con and edited their onsite newsletter, the Daily Dragon.
Eugie won the 2009 Nebula Award for Best Novelette for Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast. She’s also been a finalist for the Hugo, Washington Science Fiction Association Small Press, and British Science Fiction Association awards.
Eugie died at Emory University Hospital on September 27, 2014 from respiratory failure, a complication of treatments for Large B-Cell Lymphoma. The day Foster died, Daily Science Fiction published her last short story, nominated for the Nebula award, When it Ends, He Catches Her. The story ran on PseudoPod, and includes the Escape Artists’ tribute to this prolific and diverse author, and personal friend of many EA staff.
About the Narrator
Xander M. Odell
Xander M. Odell lives in Washington state with their husband, sons, and an Albanian miniature moose disguised as a dog. Their has appeared in such venues as Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, PseudoPod, Cast of Wonders, and PodCastle. They are a Clarion West 2010 graduate, and an active member of the SFWA.
Their collection of speculative fiction holiday stories, THE TWELVE WAYS OF CHRISTMAS, and debut short story collection GODFALL & OTHER STORIES are available from Hydra House Books.
Support them on Patreon at: http://patreon.com/writerodell
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.